On a certain night in the middle of the season all London was gathered in Lady Marchpane’s drawing-room; all London, that is, which was worth knowing–a qualification which accounted for the absence of several million people who had never heard of Lady Marchpane. In one corner of the room an Ambassador, with a few ribbons across his chest, could have been seen chatting to the latest American Duchess; in another corner one of our largest Advertisers was exchanging epigrams with a titled Newspaper Proprietor. Famous Generals rubbed shoulders with Post-Impressionist Artists; Financiers whispered sweet nothings to Breeders of prize Poms; even an Actor-Manager might have been seen accepting an apology from a Royalty who had jostled him.
“Hallo,” said Algy Lascelles, catching sight of the dignified figure of Rupert Meryton in the crowd; “how’s William?”
A rare smile lit up Rupert’s distinguished features. He was Under Secretary for Invasion Affairs, and “William” was Algy’s pleasant way of referring to the Bill which he was now piloting through the House of Commons. It was a measure for doing something or other by means of a what-d’you-call-it–I cannot be more precise without precipitating a European Conflict.
“I think we shall get it through,” said Rupert calmly.
“Lady Marchpane was talking about it just now. She’s rather interested, you know.”
Rupert’s lips closed about his mouth in a firm line. He looked over Algy’s head into the crowd. “Oh!” he said coldly.
It was barely ten years ago that young Meryton, just down from Oxford, had startled the political world by capturing the important seat of Cricklewood (E.) for the Tariffadicals–as, to avoid plunging the country into Civil War, I must call them. This was at a by-election, and the Liberatives had immediately dissolved, only to come into power after the General Election with an increased majority. Through the years that followed, Rupert Meryton, by his pertinacity in asking the Invasion Secretary questions which had been answered by him on the previous day, and by his regard for the dignity of the House, as shown in his invariable comment, “Come, come–not quite the gentleman,” upon any display of bad manners opposite, established a clear right to a post in the subsequent Tariffadical Government. He had now been Under Secretary for two years, and in this Bill his first real chance had come.
“Oh, there you are, Mr. Meryton,” said a voice. “Come and talk to me a moment.” With a nod to a couple of Archbishops Lady Marchpane led the way to a little gallery whither the crowd had not penetrated. Priceless Correggios, Tintorettos, and G. K. Chestertons hung upon the walls, but it was not to show him these that she had come. Dropping into a wonderful old Chippendale chair, she motioned him to a Blundell-Maple opposite her, and looked at him with a curious smile.
“Well,” she said, “about the Bill?”
Rupert’s lips closed about his mouth in a firm line. (He was rather good at this.) Folding his arms, he gazed steadily into Lady Marchpane’s still beautiful eyes.
“It will go through,” he said. “Through all its stages,” he added professionally.
“It must not go through,” said Lady Marchpane gently.
Rupert could not repress a start, but he was master of himself again in a moment.
“I cannot add anything to my previous statement,” he said.
“If it goes through,” began Lady Marchpane—-
“I must refer you,” said Rupert, “to my answer of yesterday.”
“Come, come, Mr. Meryton, what is the good of fencing with me? You know the position. Or shall I state it for you again?”
“I cannot believe you are serious.”
“I am perfectly serious. There are reasons, financial reasons–and others–why I do not want this Bill to pass. In return for my silence upon a certain matter, you are going to prevent it passing. You know to what I refer. On the 4th of May last—-“
“Stop!” cried Rupert hoarsely.
“On the 4th of May last,” Lady Marchpane went on relentlessly, “you and I–in the absence of my husband abroad–had tea together at an A.B.C.” (Rupert covered his face with his hands.) “I am no fonder of scandal than you are, but if you do not meet my wishes I shall certainly confess the truth to Marchpane.”
“You will be ruined too!” said Rupert.
“My husband will forgive me and take me back.” She paused significantly. “Will Marjorie Hale—-” (Rupert covered his hands with his face)–“will the good Miss Hale forgive you? She is very strict, is she not? And rich? And rising young politicians want money more than scandal.” She raised her head suddenly at the sound of footsteps. “Ah, Archbishop, I was just calling Mr. Meryton’s attention to this wonderful Botticell—-” (she looked at it more closely)—-“this wonderful Dana Gibson. A beautiful piece of work, is it not?” The intruders passed on to the supper-room, and they were alone again.
“What am I to do?” said Rupert sullenly.
“The fate of the Bill is settled to-day week, when you make your big speech. You must speak against it. Confess frankly you were mistaken. It will be a close thing, anyhow. Your influence will turn the scale.”
“It will ruin me politically.”
“You will marry Marjorie Hale and be rich. No rich man is ever ruined politically. Or socially.” She patted his hand gently. “You’ll do it?”
He got up slowly. “You’ll see next week,” he said.
It is not meet that we should watch the unhappy Rupert through the long-drawn hours of the night, as he wrestled with the terrible problem. A moment’s sudden madness on that May afternoon had brought him to the cross-roads. On the one hand, reputation, wealth, the girl that he loved; on the other, his own honour and–so, at least, he had said several times on the platform–the safety of England. He rose in the morning weary, but with his mind made up.
The Bill should go through!
Rupert Meryton was a speaker of a not unusual type. Although he provided the opinions himself, he always depended upon his secretary for the arguments with which to support them and the actual words in which to give them being. But on this occasion he felt that a special effort was required of him. He would show Lady Marchpane that the blackmail of yesterday had only roused him to a still greater effort on behalf of his country. He would write his own speech.
On the fateful night the House was crowded. It seemed that all the guests at Lady Marchpane’s a week before were in the Distinguished Strangers’ Gallery or behind the Ladies’ Grille. From the Press Gallery “Our Special Word-painter” looked down upon the statesmen beneath him, his eagle eye ready to detect on the moment the Angry Flush, the Wince, or the Sudden Paling of enemy, the Grim Smile or the Lofty Calm of friend.
The Rt. Hon. Rupert Meryton, Tariffadical Member for Cricklewood (E.) rose to his feet amidst cheers.
“Mr. Speaker,” he said, “I rise–er–to-night, sir–h’r’m, to–er—-” So much of his speech I may give, but urgent State reasons compel me to withhold the rest. Were it ever known with which Bill the secret history that I have disclosed concerns itself, the Great Powers in an instant would be at each other’s throats. But though I may not disclose the speech I can tell of its effect on the House. And its effect was curious. It was, in fact, the exact opposite of what Rupert Meryton, that promising Under Secretary, had intended.
It was the first speech that he had ever prepared himself. Than Rupert there was no more dignified figure in the House of Commons; his honour was proof, as we have seen, against the most insidious temptations; yet, since one man cannot have all the virtues, he was distinctly stupid. It would have been a hopeless speech anyhow; but, to make matters worse, he had, in the most important part of it, attempted irony. And at the beginning of the ironical passage even the Tariffadical word-painters had to confess that it was their own stalwarts who “suddenly paled.”
As Lady Marchpane had said, it was bound to be a close thing. The Liberatives and the Unialists, of course, were solid against the Bill, but there was also something of a cave in the Tariffadical Party. It was bound to be a close thing, and Rupert’s speech just made the difference. When he sat down the waverers and doubters had made up their minds.
The Bill was defeated.
. . . . .
That the Tariffadicals should resign was natural; perhaps it was equally natural that Rupert’s secretary should resign too. He said that his reputation would be gone if Rupert made any more speeches on his own, and that he wasn’t going to risk it. Without his secretary Rupert was lost at the General Election which followed. Fortunately he had a grateful friend in Lady Marchpane. She exerted her influence with the Liberatives, and got him an appointment as Governor of the Stickjaw Islands. Here, with his beautiful and rich wife, Sir Rupert Meryton maintains a regal state, and upon his name no breath of scandal rests. Indeed, his only trouble so far has been with the Stickjaw language–a difficult language, but one which, perhaps fortunately, does not lend itself to irony.